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Mikhail Grigorenko said he was nervous, which was understandable. He's 18 years old, a rookie from Russia, a kid among men. Sunday was his first NHL practice. He felt awkward for the first 10 minutes or so, as he met his Sabres teammates and did his best to fit in.

But there was no mistaking him on the ice. The gifted ones always catch your eye. This is an extreme parallel, but as Grigorenko glided along the ice, it reminded me of the first time I saw Mario Lemieux, a big man who skated so effortlessly he barely seemed to be trying.

“He looks big out there,” Lindy Ruff said after the Sabres finally opened practice at the First Niagara Center.

Grigorenko stands 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. Somehow, he seemed even bigger, perhaps because the expectations for him are so large, and because the interval between his drafting and his first practice was so long.

The question is, how long will he remain with the Sabres? They open the season at home next Sunday against the Flyers. The following Sunday, they'll play their fifth game of a compacted NHL season. At that point, they must decide whether to keep Grigorenko or return him to juniors.

That's not a lot of time to judge. There's no exhibition season, just a week of practices and the start of a whirlwind, 48-game sprint of a season.

“Hopefully,” he said, “I'm not going back to juniors.”

Grigorenko said he doesn't feel any pressure. On the day he was drafted last June, he said he expected to be in the NHL this season. But he said it shouldn't be any great disappointment if he doesn't stick here.

“If I do, people will be amazed,” he said.

Will you be amazed, I asked him?

“Yes,” Grigorenko replied.

Maybe he understands how things work with the Sabres, who have a history of caution in these matters. It certainly won't be a shock if they send Grigorenko back to Quebec for more seasoning.

Ruff intimated as much after the opening workout. He acknowledged Grigorenko's offensive skills, but said he'll know more after he sees the kid compete in drills and in games against live NHL opposition.

“Long-term, you have to understand where he's at and what's best for him,” Ruff said. “What's best for him, and what's best for us.”

It often comes down to what's best for Ruff's precious defensive system. Jochen Hecht, one of his long-time favorites, joined the team Sunday after signing a one-year contract for $1 million. Hecht's teammates tapped their sticks on the ice in a ritual welcome.

Hecht is 35, the senior Sabre. At that salary, he could be a helpful addition. But he also represents a tired, failed culture. He is part of a core group – including Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek – that is going on six years without winning a playoff series.

The Hecht signing could mean that Grigorenko is ticketed for another year in juniors. That would be typical of an organization that becomes infatuated with its own players and is often too slow to elevate promising young players to the parent team.

Grigorenko is too good to spend another year in juniors, playing against boys. No doubt, his game needs polish. He has to mature. But if the Sabres want him to learn how to compete against men, they should allow him to learn alongside them at the NHL level.

Let the guys on the big club nurture and school him. The best way to adapt to the physical challenges of the NHL is to do it against NHL competition.

“If I'm with them every practice, I can learn so much stuff on the ice and off the ice, too,” Grigorenko said.

He might help them win, too.

The NHL is evolving. Teenagers can have an impact these days. Four of the top eight selections in the 2011 draft played a full season in the NHL.

Jeff Skinner was 18 when he won the Calder Trophy for the Hurricanes two seasons ago.

Grigorenko was the No. 3-ranked prospect by NHL Scouting going into the draft. He slipped down the board on draft day, largely because he had a reputation for being lazy. It's a common bias against Russians.

The Sabres got him with the 12th overall pick. They were stunned to see him drop that far. They had a glaring need for a center. Still, Ruff was dubious until Patrick Roy, Grigorenko's coach in juniors, gave the young Russian a ringing endorsement.

Roy said Grigorenko was a hard worker, contrary to the reports. His stamina was an issue, but not his desire. Grigorenko has a seemingly effortless style, the kind that makes you think he doesn't care enough – that he's not enough of a “grinder” in hockey parlance.

Ruff loves his grinders. Maybe what he needs is more real stars. But Grigorenko might be too risky an idea at the moment. Ruff is under fire, more so than General Manager Darcy Regier. He always seems worried about losing the next game. Look at the way he handles his backup goalies.

So Ruff, who needs to win now, might be unwilling to tolerate the fundamental mistakes of a gifted 18-year-old. Before you know it, we'll hear about Grigorenko's back-checking flaws and he'll fall out of favor, the way Luke Adam did a year ago.

Grigorenko has played 50 games this season between juniors and the junior worlds. He's in shape and might have an edge over more established players in the early going. He might even win them a game.

But Hecht, the coach's ideal, is back on the ice.

Why would Ruff take a gamble on great when he can settle for reliably average?



email: jsullivan@buffnews.com